A classic cocky bastard, set up as such to better offset the impending humbling, Jimmy Starks (played to smooth and oily perfection by Guy Pearce) immediately reveals his nature alongside his broken down car on a deserted road: Holding up his cell phone to check reception, taking long drags off a cigarette, whipping out a hairbrush in the middle of a conversation, obnoxiousness wafts off the two-bit huckster like heat waves. Waiting for his car to be fixed, he — why not? — ducks into a conveniently located clairvoyant’s caravan. But after a few preliminary predictions, the psychic (J.K. Simmons) stops short, refuses to go further, refunds the money. “First Snow” takes its title from the soothsayer’s eventual forecast (gleaned after Jimmy’s return visits): “no more tomorrows” for Jimmy; his safety guaranteed only until those first flakes hit the ground.
Writing partners Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (both members of the screenwriting team that gave us the dazzling “Children of Men“), in the former’s directorial debut, have created an alternately witty and dull psychological thriller intriguingly lacking in suspense. Simplistic and yet not unintelligent, it only spottily achieves its canny aspiration: to produce tension despite having already divulged its end point.
Shedding loftier metaphysical musings of fate-versus-free-will, “First Snow” accepts a basic notion of destiny as a given, a solid rather than slippery starting point. In doing so, it relegates most of the action to the interior, as Jimmy grapples with knowledge of his dead-end future. From his heightened point-of-view, we watch the world go by, and, whether a car’s squeal, a stranger’s surreptitious glance, or a crank call, seemingly every moment portends doom. On top of these amplified mundane threats, numerous site-specific factors are implicated in his presaged demise — an irregular heartbeat, a burned colleague (Rick Gonzalez), a betrayed former friend now out on parole (Shea Whigham) — but more than the potential culprits themselves, Jimmy’s preemptive actions to elude fate have him exacerbating the risks, not to mention alienating his girlfriend (Piper Perabo).
Though Fergus wants to strip the fatalistic premise of sensationalism and address it in human terms (how would you react to the information?), unavoidably and unfortunately, “First Snow” occasionally resembles the “Final Destination” franchise (how will he die?). Conceptually interesting but lacking complexity, it doesn’t provide enough mental stimulation for thorough engagement. Still, set in and around Albuquerque, the film has a dry, empty expanse that, interspersed with suburban build-up, conjures a suggestively textured space within which Jimmy’s fears can run amok. And the writer-turned-director’s first-person feel for how a man might facilitate his own undoing, too trapped in his own obsessive thoughts, proves surprisingly resonant.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]